John C. Frémont’s Emancipation Proclamation

A momentous event in the history of emancipation in the United States occurred at the end of August 1861, as a result of the initiative of one man: John C. Frémont, the recently appointed commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the West. Frémont issued a martial law declaration that among other actions freed the slaves of Missouri’s disloyal slaveholders. The key passage of the document read:

The property, real and personal, of all persons in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms against the United States, and who shall be directly proven to have taken active part with their enemies in the field, is declared to be confiscated to the public use; and their slaves, if any they have, are hereby declared free.

It was a bold move from a man with an already legendary and often controversial career. As an officer in the antebellum U.S. Army, Frémont’s explorations of the American West gained him from the press the title “Pathfinder.” During the Mexican War, he played a key role in the U.S. seizure of California, serving for a time as its military governor (for which he was court-martialed) and later one of the first two U.S. Senators when it achieved statehood. He also was the first presidential nominee of the infant Republican party in 1856, losing the election to James Buchanan. At the start of the Civil War, his military experience and political prominence won him a commission as a Major General and in July 1861, President Lincoln appointed him commander of the Department of the West, with its headquarters based in St. Louis, Missouri.

While a natural choice for commander of this department, given his experience and connections in the region, John C. Frémont’s bold and impetuous nature was not a good fit for the unstable and increasingly violent situation that existed in Missouri by Summer 1861. The state by then was experiencing a civil war within a civil war as irregular pro-Confederate forces fought a bitter guerilla war with the state’s unionists backed by the federal government. This conflict reached a crisis point after the Union defeat at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10 threatened to open Missouri to Confederate invasion.  The weakened position of Union forces led Frémont to declare martial law in Missouri at the end of August (some sources date it August 30, others August 31).

The question is why did John C. Frémont try to free the slaves of Missouri’s disloyal slaveholders in his martial law declaration?

Part of the answer was although a Southerner, Frémont detested slavery. Born in Savannah, Georgia and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, young Frémont did not grow up as part of the plantation elite, but as the son of a widowed mother living in often straightened circumstances. Gifted at attracting the interest of powerful and influential men, Frémont became the protégé of Joel R. Poinsett, who imparted to him his quiet skepticism of slavery as well as making his military career possible (Poinsett was Secretary of War in the Van Buren administration). By the 1850s, Frémont’s dislike of slavery had grown and helped him win the nomination as the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party in 1856.

Another part of the answer was Frémont’s exalted sense of his own importance and impetuous nature, which had gotten him into trouble in the past. As commander of the Western Department, he quickly surrounded himself with an unusually large staff, including Owen Lovejoy, the pro-abolitionist Illinois Congressman featured in the July 9 edition of Civil War Emancipation for his successful House resolution absolving the Union army of capturing fugitive slaves. Lovejoy had finagled a colonel’s commission and joined Frémont in the Department of the West. Under Owen Lovejoy’s influence and that of other radical Republicans in St. Louis, and with the crisis atmosphere in Missouri after the federal defeat at Wilson’s Creek, John C. Frémont evidently decided there was a need to strike hard at the state’s disloyal element. His martial law declaration not only freed the slaves of disloyal owners, but also threatened with death any person taken in arms fighting Union forces.

In retrospect, Frémont’s action was obviously foolish overreaching. But as a politician of long national standing, and an independent power in the Republican party, he felt he could make his proclamation stick, especially against a president like Lincoln that many people early in his first term were prone to underestimate because he had only recently achieved national prominence and was still seen by many Republicans as a second-rate compromise candidate likely to become a mediocre President. John C. Frémont would pay dearly for misjudging Abraham Lincoln and the power of his own position, but his action in Missouri in late August 1861 would be emulated by other Union field commanders and a year later Lincoln himself. Fremont’s emancipation proclamation though impetuous was merely ahead of its time.

Source: Harpweek,

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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